I had only been traveling by myself for about 10 days, but it felt like a lot longer and I was in need of something a little less intense. I also wanted my last week to be free of obligations in the way of museums, temples, palaces, monuments, etc. I wanted to just BE in India. I wanted to be able to just live a resemblance of a normal day, against an Indian backdrop.
So, I hightailed it to the Arabian Sea.
As soon as we crossed into the state of Kerala, everything became green. The number of palm trees here is really something! Palm groves are thick and homes, temples and buildings are built among the palm trees instead of cutting them down to make room. I was missing this kind of greenery!
The small, seaside town of Varkala was the perfect place to kick back and do a whole lot of nothing. While typically not too much of a beach gal, I was thankful to spend a few days hearing the crash of waves and the crow of roosters instead of the incessant beeping of horns and the roar of spirited chatter of massive crowds of people.
The tourist area of Varkala centers around the North Cliff, a thin strip of restaurants and shops with the sea crashing directly into the cliff down below. While there was some good food to be had and it was nice to be able to have a beer without issue, it is the kind of place that grows old in about 20 minutes. As has been the case all through the south, it is low tourist season so shop owners and tourist service providers are VERY keen to get your business and it wears on the nerves quickly. I was lucky to have chosen the right homestay (Eva Luna) as it was a quick 10 minute walk away from the cliffs, but tucked into palm groves and far from the road.
The B&B owners helped me plan a day where I could get far away from the North Cliff scene and see some of the real beauty of this region. The 5km walk took a few hours as I made my way from Kapil beach back to Varkala, passing many beaches with absolutely no one around and a few fishermen compounds. Because the state of Kerala is in between monsoons there really isn’t too much beach this time of year. Apparently from November to March the existing beaches widen considerably and several new ones appear – fine by me as I prefer to stay sand-free.
Teetering between staying another day or two or continuing on my visit within the state of Kerala, I chose to move on to the backwaters, an area where boats are the preferred method of transportation and people visit to spend time floating out on the web of connected rivers, canals, lakes and lagoons. Evidently there are about 1500 kms in the network. I had been hearing about the backwaters for years and had expected it to be a highlight of the trip, but ended up a bit disappointed. This was in part due to arriving without a plan, choosing the town of Alleppey as my hub, and it being much busier than I’d expected given that it was a long 4 day holiday weekend for locals and a lot of national tourists had come to the region to spend their break. One of the classic things to do in the backwaters is to rent a houseboat with a few others and spend a night or two out floating on these moving hotels. As a solo traveler that didn’t really make sense or sound like much fun.
Instead, I spent my first day exploring the area on local transport. I took a public ferry suggested by my hostel and stayed on while it completed its 2 hour loop. It quickly became clear just how many freakin’ houseboats are out there as it was nearly a traffic jam of boats on the main waterways.The houseboats, according to a tourism website, are “made by wooden planks tied together with coconut ropes and painted with cashew nut oil outside. They are 70 to 100 feet long and 15 to 20 feet wide.” The ferry stopped frequently picking up and dropping off people and was a good way to see how life works along these narrow strips of land where communities have been built. In the afternoon I hopped on a city bus to head north about 30 minutes to another beach.
The second day I decided to book a full day boat/canoe trip. Because it was a small boat I expected that we’d get into some of the narrower channels and areas, but a good part of the day was spent pretty much in the same areas I’d seen the day before. The nice part was that it was a motorless boat so once we were away from the houseboats, with no motor to make a ruckus we were able to float quietly and our guide was a very friendly man who tried as best he could to share bits about life in the backwaters. Of the 4 of us on the boat for the day, 1 was a biologist interested in birds. With his help and his binoculars, I got to see all sorts of birds – the highlight being a couple different species of the colorful kingfisher. Lunch was provided by our tour guide’s wife in their small home somewhere in the backwaters and I enjoyed the simple fare served on a banana leaf and eaten sans silverware.
While glad I stopped in the backwaters as otherwise I’d always be wondering, it didn’t pan out to be all that great for me. The town of Alleppey is hectic and loud. Perhaps if I’d been more proactive in planning the stop and had found a homestay out of the city along a quiet canal, it might have been a different experience. For what I saw it is over-transited and the water is terribly polluted with the exhaust of all the houseboats.
Despite being a little let down in the backwaters, the 5 days spent along the Arabian Sea in my attempt to see a more laid-back India proved worthwhile and gave me much needed time to reflect on all I’ve had the fortune to see and do over the past 5 weeks. With only a few days left in India, I started to alternate between wanting to stay longer and feeling ready to leave.